Shades of Big Brother? Study finds smart TVs are keeping tabs on us

In the book 1984 by George Orwell, published almost exactly 70 years ago, a totalitarian government watched its citizens through their television set. While that may seem like a wild, tinfoil hat-wearing kind of dystopia, it turns out that it wasn’t too far off. Our televisions, and other smart devices, may be watching us after all, if not to that extreme level.

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In a study by Princeton University, researchers found that internet-connected TVs have data trackers that record a surprising amount of things using bots.

“We used this smart crawler to visit more than 2,000 channels on two popular OTT (over-the-top) platforms, namely Roku and Amazon Fire TV,” researchers stated in their report. “Our results show that tracking is pervasive on both OTT platforms, with traffic to known trackers present on 69 percent of Roku channels and 89 percent of Amazon Fire TV channels.” One of the most common trackers found was Google DoubleClick.

Researchers found that the type of data gathered included the user’s device type, device serial number, city, state, Wi-Fi network, and advertising ID. Once the data is collected, it seems to be shared all over the web. “We also observed that certain OTT channels contact more than 60 tracking domains and the data shared with the trackers include video titles, Wi-Fi SSIDs, MAC addresses, and device serial numbers,” they noted in the study.

Would turning off the targeted advertising option help? Not really. Turning it off just stops the advertising ID from being tracked. It seems, other than disconnecting it from the internet completely, there’s no way to stop all of the tracking and data collection when it comes to televisions.

While worrisome, this type of tracking isn’t uncommon. Netflix tracks physical activity data, Facebook gatherers your data, and even your security devices are spying on you. A study by Northeastern University found that just about any kind of smart device, from televisions to wireless video doorbells, smart speakers, and your digital assistants, are tracking you, collecting data, and sending it out over your internet connection.

“And since they’re in our homes and they can do things like detect motion, they know when we’re home, they listen to our voice commands, they record video, they’re potentially getting access to a lot of sensitive data about us,” said David Choffnes, an associate professor who led the study with others from Northeastern and Imperial College London, on the college’s blog.

Read the full Princeton University study: Watching You Watch: The Tracking Ecosystem of Over-the-Top TV Streaming Devices.